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Is there a "white-skin privilege"?

April 14, 2006 | Page 8

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR examines one popular explanation for the persistence of racism--that all whites benefit from the oppression of all Blacks, and therefore enjoy a "white-skin privilege."

THE NEW York Times recently reported that in 2004, 72 percent of African American men in their 20s who had dropped out of high school were unemployed, compared to only 34 percent of white men and 19 percent of Latinos. Half of Black men in their 20s with high school diplomas were unemployed in 2004.

Decades after the civil rights movement, second-class citizenship, poverty and injustice are stark realities for millions of African Americans in this country. After Hurricane Katrina, no one with any remote contact with reality could deny that both race and class are the axes upon which American society rotates.

The new movement for immigrant rights has helped to expose the racism that shapes the lives of millions of brown people in this country, as well. From Arabs to Mexicans, racial minorities are blamed for everything from "potential" terrorist attacks to unemployment.

The question arises, though: Does the oppression of one group of workers lead to the enrichment or benefit of another?

On the surface, this may seem like common sense. A cursory look at any set of statistics shows that, on average, white people have more accumulated wealth, make more money, have more access to college, go to better schools and even have a longer lifespan.

What all of these things point to is that we live in a deeply racist society, in which some people clearly do benefit. The question is, which people.

The problem with framing this inequality in terms of "white-skin privilege" is twofold. If we only look at aggregate statistics telling us that "whites" are better off than "Blacks," it doesn't provide the whole picture. It doesn't tell us which whites are better off than which Blacks.

If we only go by the numbers and not what lies beneath the numbers, then what do we say about the fact that Latino unemployment is lower than Black unemployment? Are Latinos benefiting from Black oppression? What do we say about the fact that immigrants have a higher poverty rate than Black Americans? Are Blacks benefiting from the oppression of immigrants?

Second, the idea of "white privilege" never addresses the central question of why racism arose in the first place, and in whose interest.

Racism developed in the West during the Atlantic slave trade as a way to "explain" the enslavement of Africans. Slaveholders in this country--who were also the political elite, including many of the so-called "founding fathers"--rationalized that Africans were savages, had no culture and could benefit from slavery.

When slavery ended, racism did not end with it, but became a tool by which the wealthy could divide poor Blacks from poor whites. Racism, in the "golden age" of imperialism at the end of the 19th century and into the 20th century, also was a justification for invading other parts of the world in order to "civilize" the "savages," or to take up the "white man's burden."

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THE NOTION of white-skin privilege obscures the fact that we live in a class society, in which a tiny minority of rich people rule and control all of the wealth and resources in society. Because they are few, they rely on scapegoats and division to maintain their rule.

This isn't a conspiracy--instead, it happens in front of our faces every day. The politicians today blame immigrants for unemployment and low wages--not the fact that the minimum wage isn't a living wage, or that corporations are allowed to abandon entire cities because it's cheaper to move production to a nonunion state or a poorer country.

"White privilege" makes it seem that all whites are responsible for oppressing all Blacks. This outlook ignores the class divide.

The ruling class in this country is made up almost entirely of white men, but not exclusively. It is difficult to conceive of how Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice or former Secretary of State Colin Powell are victimized by their lack of white privilege.

While those two are easy to pick out, in general, the Black political elite and Black executives--from Sen. Barack Obama to Kenneth Chenault, the CEO of American Express--are not suffering because of a lack of white privilege either. In fact, they have a lot more say over the lives of ordinary white workers than those white workers will ever have over them.

Conversely, if "white privilege" exists, then there are millions of ordinary white workers who have yet to figure out exactly how to cash in. The fact is that the majority of people without health care, the majority of the unemployed, the majority of the homeless and the majority of those who live in poverty are white. These numbers don't reflect benefits or privilege. They reflect exploitation and oppression.

The disparity that does exists between white and non-white workers is the result of racism and discrimination--not white privilege--by employers, landlords, mortgage lenders, city governments and the federal government.

Racism harms all workers, including white workers, by driving down wages and living standards for the entire working class. It is the ruling class that has always been the true beneficiary of racism. From the riches gained from slave labor, to divided workforces unable to unite for better wages and conditions, our rulers have clearly reaped all of the benefits and privileges.

The clearest way to illustrate this is to compare the incomes of Black and white workers in the North and South of the U.S.

As one author wrote: "Despite the continued gross discrimination against Black skilled craftsmen in the North, the 'privileged' southern whites earned 4 percent less than they did. Southern white male operatives averaged...18 percent less than northern Black male operatives. And southern white service workers earned...14 percent less than northern Black male service workers."

It was never ordained that just because one lives in the North, wages are supposed to be higher, or if one lives in the South, wages automatically have to be lower. Southern workers--Black and white--make lower wages and generally have a lower standard of living because of the legacy of the most vicious racism, and the ability of the bosses to use racism, threats and intimidation to limit unionization.

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NONE OF this is to say that there aren't white workers who buy into racist ideas. But the fact is that all workers--regardless of race--buy into some idea of racism.

For example, many workers, Black, white and Latino, have bought into the idea--to some degree--that Arabs and Muslims are more likely to be terrorists, and therefore should be treated differently. Black and white workers accept some of the anti-immigrant hysteria against Latinos because of the anxiety about the economy and jobs.

But we have to distinguish between what individual workers may think, and real material benefits.

Workers buy into racism for two primary reasons--and not because we are all born with some predisposition to racism.

The first is that we live in a society in which racism is the norm. We are inundated with racist stereotypes about Blacks, immigrants, Arabs and Muslims every single day. From the media perpetuating suspicion about Blacks; to Hollywood's portrayal of non-whites as drug dealers or terrorists, and not much in between; to Democrats and Republicans using "wedge issues" like affirmative action to conjure resentment between non-white workers and white workers; the ruling class actively uses racism to divide the working class.

The great Black abolitionist, Frederick Douglass put it succinctly, "The hostility between the whites and the Blacks of the South is easily explained...[B]oth are plundered by the same plunderers...and [hostility] was incited on both sides by the poor whites and the Blacks by putting enmity between them. They divided both to conquer each."

The other reason racism exists in the working class is that workers compete with each other for jobs, housing, education and everything else in this society. As Karl Marx explained, "Competition separates individuals from one another, not only the bourgeois but still more the workers, in spite of the fact it brings them together. Hence, it is a long time before these individuals can unite...Hence every power standing over these isolated individuals...can only be overcome after long struggles."

But struggle does change the ideas of the working class. The civil rights movement fundamentally changed the racist caricatures that white workers had of Black workers. By the beginning of the 1970s, most white workers were in favor of affirmative action--only a few years after Blacks had gotten the right to vote.

The mass movement of Latino immigrants today is playing a crucial role in shifting racist ideas about immigrant workers.

The advances made in changing consciousness will not be permanent until we have a society based on justice and equality, not racism and scapegoating.

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